Red Sea or Yam Swf an Egyptian Phrase
H. Abdul Al-Dahir
The biblical designation for the Red Sea is Yam Swf whose meaning is thought to be Sea of Reeds. The term Red Sea derives from the Greek phrase Erythra Thalassa which means Red Sea. The word ‘yam’ in the phrase ‘yam swf’ or yam means sea. There is a general agreement that the word ‘swf’ refers to reeds but no one was quite sure of the etymology of this word. The Septuagint transcribes this word as ‘papyrou’ or papyrus in Koine Greek, so one can safely deduce that the word ‘swf’ in Hebrew must be a word meaning papyrus as this is confirmed in Isa 19:7 which reads:
The paper reeds by the brooks, by the mouth of the brooks, and every thing sown by the brooks, shall wither, be driven away, and be no more.
The word for paper reed in Greek is papyrou or papyrus and in Hebrew the word is ‘arah which according to Strong’s means:
6169 `arah (pronounced as) aw-raw’: feminine from ‘`arah’ (6168); a naked (i.e. level) plot:–paper reed
The word for papyrus in ancient Egyptian was twfy or V13-G43-I9-Z4-M2-Z2. In the Egyptian dialect the ‘t’ is very, very often pronounced as an ‘s’ so twfy would be pronounced as ‘swfy’. Swfy or Swf, the dialectical pronunciation, was how this word entered into Hebrew. This word was evidently one of the words used by at least a few of the Septuagint authors before the authors later Hellenized the phrase Yem twfy or Yam Swf to read Erythra Thalassy meaning Red Sea. Originally, the phrase was Yem twfy or M17-M17-N35A-N36-N21-Z1 + V13-G43-I9-Z4-M2-Z2 meaning the Papyrus Sea in Egyptian. This was most likely originally transliterated into Greek as Yam Swf but was later changed to Erythra Thalassy or Red Sea. So, Yam Suf derives from the Egyptian phrase Yem twfy or Papyrus Sea which is not the name the Egyptians dubbed this sea.
The Egyptian term for Red Sea appears to have been some form of Yem Heh based on the Coptic designation of the sea as Phiom Enhah. According to Wiki, the name of Heh (a primordial Egyptian deity of the Ogdoad) originally meant “flood”, referring to the watery chaos that the Egyptians believed existed before the creation of the world. The puzzle is when and why did Yem twfy or Yam Swf become the phrase of choice by the Masoretes (the Arabic speaking authors who edited, translated and transcribed the Masoretic texts) instead of the Hellenized version Erythra Thalassa. Given the change from ‘t’ to ‘s’, Yam Swf was a term used in Ptolemaic Egypt just as the term Gesem was an Egyptian transliterated word that made its way into the Septuagint and then into the MT as Goshen. The answer must be lost in the versions of the Septuagint that were available to the Masoretes but have since disappeared. In any event, the puzzle as to the origin and meaning of the word ‘swf’ in the biblical phrase ‘yam swf’ has been solved. The phrase is Egyptian and it means Papyrus Sea.